Under Serra’s leadership, tens of thousands of Native Americans across Alta California, as the region was then known, were absorbed into Catholic missions – places said by one particularly rapturous myth-maker in the 19th century to be filled with “song, laughter, good food, beautiful languor, and mystical adoration of the Christ”
What this rosy-eyed view omits is that these natives were brutalized – beaten, pressed into forced labour and infected with diseases to which they had no resistance – and the attempt to integrate them into the empire was a miserable failure. The journalist and historian Carey McWilliams wrote almost 70 years ago the missions could be better conceived as “a series of picturesque charnel houses”.
Opponents point out that, from the time Serra arrived in 1769, the native population was ravaged by European diseases, including syphilis spread by marauding Spanish soldiers. Indians brought into the missions were not allowed to leave, and if they tried they were shackled and severely beaten.
They were used as forced labour to build out the Mission’s farming projects. They were fed atrociously, separated from close family members and packed into tight living quarters that often became miasmas of disease and death.
When the Native Americans rebelled, which they did on at least two occasions, their rebellions were put down in brutal fashion. When Native American women were caught trying to abort babies conceived through rape, the mission fathers had them beaten for days on end, clamped them in irons, had their heads shaved and forced them to stand at the church altar every Sunday carrying a painted wooden child in their arms.